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Medical And Superstitious Treatment Of The Insane In The Olden Time

Among our Saxon ancestors the treatment of the insane was a curious
compound of pharmacy, superstition, and castigation. Demoniacal
possession was fully believed to be the frequent cause of insanity, and,
as is well known, exorcism was practised by the Church as a recognized
ordinance. We meet with some interesting particulars in regard to
treatment, in what may be called its medico-ecclesiastical aspect, in a
work of the early part of the tenth century, by an unknown author,
entitled "Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England," or,
as we should say, "Medicine, Herb Treatment, and Astrology." It forms a
collection of documents never before published, illustrating the history
of science in this country before the Norman Conquest.[2] It clearly
appears that the Saxon leeches derived much of their knowledge directly
from the Romans, and through them from the Greeks, but they also
possessed a good deal of their own. The herbs they employed bespeak
considerable acquaintance with botany and its application to medicine as
understood at that day. The classic peony was administered as a remedy
for insanity, and mugwort was regarded as useful in putting to flight
what this Saxon book calls "devil sickness," that is, a mental malady
arising from a demon. Here is a recipe for "a fiend-sick man" when a
demon possesses or dominates him from within. "Take a spew-drink, namely
lupin, bishopwort, henbane, cropleek. Pound them together; add ale for a
liquid, let it stand for a night, and add fifty libcorns[3] or cathartic
grains and holy water."[4] Here, at any rate, we have a remedy still
employed, although rejected from the English Pharmacopoeias of 1746 and
1788--henbane or hyoscyamus--to say nothing of ale. Another mixture,
compounded of many herbs and of clear ale, was to be drunk out of a
church-bell,[5] while seven masses were to be sung over the worts or
herbs, and the lunatic was to sing psalms, the priest saying over him
the Domine, sancte pater omnipotens.

Dioscorides and Apuleius are often the sources of the prescriptions of
the Saxons, at least as regards the herb employed. For a lunatic it is
ordered to "take clove wort and wreathe it with a red thread about the
man's swere (neck) when the moon is on the wane, in the month which is
called April, in the early part of October; soon he will be healed."
Again, "for a lunatic, take the juice of teucrium polium which we named
polion, mix with vinegar, smear therewith them that suffer that evil
before it will to him (before the access), and shouldest thou put the
leaves of it and the roots of it on a clean cloth, and bind about the
man's swere who suffers the evil, it will give an experimental proof of
that same thing (its virtue)."[6]

It is greatly to be regretted that the virtues ascribed to peony, used
not internally, but in the following way, are not confirmed by
experience. "For lunacy, if a man layeth this wort peony over the
lunatic, as he lies, soon he upheaveth himself hole; and if he have this
wort with him, the disease never again approaches him."[7]

Mandrake, as much as three pennies in weight, administered in a draught
of warm water, was prescribed for witlessness; and periwinkle (Vinca
pervinca) was regarded as of great advantage for demoniacal possession,
and "various wishes, and envy, and terror, and that thou may have grace,
and if thou hast this wort with thee thou shalt be prosperous and ever

Then follows an amusing direction: "This wort shalt thou pluck thus,
saying, 'I pray thee, Vinca pervinca, thee that art to be had for thy
many useful qualities, that thou come to me glad, blossoming with thy
mainfulnesses; that thou outfit me so, that I be shielded and ever
prosperous, and undamaged by poisons and by wrath;' when thou shalt
pluck this wort, thou shalt be clean from every uncleanness, and thou
shalt pick it when the moon is nine nights old, and eleven nights, and
thirteen nights and thirty nights, and when it is one night old."[8]

For epilepsy in a child a curious charm is given in this book, used also
for "a dream of an apparition." The brain of a mountain goat was to be
drawn through a golden ring, and then "given to the child to swallow
before it tastes milk; it will be healed."[9]

Wolf's flesh, well-dressed and sodden, was to be eaten by a man troubled
with hallucinations. "The apparitions which ere appeared to him, shall
not disquiet him."[10]

Temptations of the fiend were warded off by "a wort hight red
niolin--red stalk--which waxeth by running water. If thou hast it on
thee and under thy head bolster, and over thy house doors, the devil may
not scathe thee, within nor without" (lviii.).

Again, we have a cure for mental vacancy and folly: "Put into ale
bishopwort, lupins, betony, the southern (or Italian) fennel, nepte
(catmint), water agrimony, cockle, marche; then let the man drink. For
idiocy and folly: Put into ale cassia, and lupins, bishopwort,
alexander, githrife, fieldmore, and holy water; then let him drink."

Although hardly coming under my theme, I cannot omit this: "Against a
woman's chatter: Taste at night fasting a root of radish, that day the
chatter cannot harm thee."

For the temptations of the fiend and for night (goblin) visitors, for
fascination, and for evil enchantments by song, they prescribed as
follows:--"Seek in the maw of young swallows for some little stones, and
mind that they touch neither earth nor water nor other stones; look out
three of them; put them on the man on whom thou wilt, him who hath the
need, he will soon be well."

The ceremonial enjoined in making use of a salve against the elfin race
and nocturnal goblin visitors (nightmare) is extremely curious. "Take
the ewe hop plant (probably female hop), wormwood, bishopwort, lupin,
etc.; put these worts into a vessel, set them under the altar, sing over
them nine masses, boil them in butter and sheep's grease, add much holy
salt, strain through a cloth, throw the worts into running water. If any
ill tempting occur to a man, or an elf or goblin night-visitors come,
smear his forehead with this salve, and put it on his eyes, and where
his body is sore, and cense him with incense, and sign him frequently
with the sign of the cross; his condition will soon be better"

There is no doubt that in these prescriptions a distinction was made
between persons who were regarded as possessed and those supposed to be
lunatics. For the latter, however, the ecclesiastical element came in as
well as the medical one. Herbs were prescribed which were to be mixed
with foreign ale and holy water, while masses were sung over the patient
"Let him drink this drink," say they, "for nine mornings, at every one
fresh, and no other liquid that is thick and still; and let him give
alms and earnestly pray God for his mercies." The union of ale and holy
water forms an amusing, though unintentioned, satire on the jovial monk
of the Middle Ages. I may remark that the old Saxon term "wood" is
applied in these recipes to the frenzied. It survives in the Scotch
"wud," i.e. mad.[12] Thus for the "wood-heart" it is ordered that
"when day and night divide, then sing thou in the Church, litanies, that
is, the names of the hallows (or saints) and the Paternoster." This was,
as usual, accompanied by the taking of certain herbs and drink. In some
instances, a salve was to be smeared on the temples and above the eyes.
Medicated baths were not omitted in their prescriptions. Thus for a
"wit-sick man," as they call him, they say, "Put a pail full of cold
water, drop thrice into it some of the drink, bathe the man in the
water, and let him eat hallowed bread and cheese and garlic and
cropleek, and drink a cup full of the drink; and when he hath been
bathed, smear with the salve thoroughly, and when it is better with him,
then work him a strong purgative drink," which is duly particularized.
It is unnecessary to give more of these quaint prescriptions, one of
which is a drink "against a devil and dementedness" (an illustration, by
the way, how the one idea ran into the other); those which I have given
will suffice to show the kind of pharmacopoeia in use, with the Saxon
monk-doctor, for madness. But did their treatment consist of nothing
more potent or severe than herbs and salves and baths? It would have
been surprising indeed had it not. And so we find the following
decidedly stringent application prescribed:--"In case a man be lunatic,
take a skin of mere-swine (that is, a sea-pig or porpoise), work it into
a whip, and swinge the man therewith; soon he will be well. Amen."[13]

Before taking leave of this interesting book I think that the impression
left on the mind of the reader in regard to the circumstances under
which it was written, will be clearer, if I cite the following
description by the editor:--"Here," he says, "a leech calmly sits down
to compose a not unlearned book, treating of many serious diseases,
assigning for them something he hopes will cure them.... The author
almost always rejects the Greek recipes, and doctors as an herborist....
Bald was the owner of the book, Cild the scribe. The former may be
fairly presumed to have been a medical practitioner, for to no other
could such a book as this have had, at that time, much interest. We see,
then, a Saxon leech at his studies; the book, in a literary sense, is
learned; in a professional view not so, for it does not really advance
man's knowledge of disease or of cures. It may have seemed by the solemn
elaboration of its diagnoses to do so, but I dare not assert there is
real substance in it.... If Bald was at once a physician and a reader of
learned books on therapeutics, his example implies a school of medicine
among the Saxons. And the volume itself bears out the presumption. We
read in two cases that 'Oxa taught this leechdom;' in another, that
'Dun taught it;' in another, 'some teach us;' in another, an impossible
prescription being quoted, the author, or possibly Cild, the reedsman,
indulges in a little facetious comment, that compliance was not

Some light is thrown on the treatment of the insane in early English
days by a study of the "Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and
Ireland durin